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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is Collaboration One-Sided?

By Peter DeWitt — March 14, 2016 4 min read
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It’s a word that is used a lot these days, which tends to make me nervous, because other words that have been used too much have become negative phrases that we can’t seem to use anymore around teachers and leaders. Words and phrases like differentiated instruction or 21st century skills. Educational words are like our favorite songs on the radio, at some point we get tired of hearing them all the time.

Will that happen to collaboration?

Truth be told I love the collaborating. According to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, collaboration means “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.” How awesome is that? There have been countless times that I have learned a great deal from the people I was talking or working with in daily conversations or at workshops and presentations.

Plus, in these days of talking about how students should curate information rather than consume it, we as educators need to be doing the same, and collaboration is the best way to get there. We need the power of the people and not some individual agenda to take us where we need to go in education.

Which means we have to engage in authentic collaboration.

One-Sided Collaboration
There are leaders who believe collaboration means that teachers, parents and students should share in the beliefs of the leader. It’s not that they don’t believe that collaboration is about learning from one another, but too often leaders believe that the point of collaboration is to further their own interests.

It’s more about manipulating than collaborating.

Collaboration is seen as something to get through...rather than learn from. That is not meant to be critical of leaders. Quite honestly, leaders are just following the same path as the leaders before them followed. After all, if you’re the leader, aren’t you supposed to be the one with all the ideas?

In our leadership trainings we were told to be transformational, and then over the last few years we have heard that we need to be instructional leaders. Many leaders consider themselves to be the lead learners. All of this, although with good intentions, puts the leader in control of everything.

As leaders, we have to be careful not to always be the ones in control.

The problem with leaders always being in control is that it sets up a dynamic where teachers may feel as though they have a lower level of self-efficacy because they see changes as something that is done to them, and often without their input. Teachers with a low level of self-efficacy believe that they have little impact on the students in their classrooms (Bandura and Eells). They feel as though they are coming to school each day to put work in front of students, and they don’t engage in a great deal of dialogue with their students or colleagues.

The good news is that this phenomena of low self-efficacy is that it’s not fixed.

Through having dialogue around the growth mindset, and then actually fostering a school climate where teachers feel as though they can take risks, we will see teachers take risks and find that they actually have a voice in the school (read more here about Teacher Voice). As my friend Russ Quaglia often says, “It’s about dreaming and doing.”

Fostering a climate that authentically focuses on growth mindset (read here for more about why the growth mindset won’t work) and teacher voice becomes a climate where teachers have a higher level of self-efficacy and promotes the idea of collective teacher efficacy, which John Hattie (I work with John as a Visible Learning trainer) has put at the top of his list of over 200 influences on learning. Collective teacher efficacy has a 1.57 effect size, which is almost quadruple the hinge point which shows to have a year’s worth of progress for a year’s input.

Through that growth mindset we can collectively get teachers and leaders to work together to tap into the full potential of everyone, and that will result in fostering student voice, and a focus on learning.

One-Sided Professional Development
Unfortunately, where leaders often make a mistake around collaboration is through professional development. Teachers are often sent, or attend within district, their own professional development which leaders don’t attend. This becomes harmful when it comes to district initiatives, and it foster low self-efficacy.

When districts set up trainings around initiatives, which can be a great place to foster collective-teacher efficacy, leaders often skip...or aren’t invited to...the trainings. This creates a divide between teachers and leaders, and then teachers look around wondering why their leader isn’t present, and then they worry that this initiative is doomed to fail...so they begin to have a lower level of self-efficacy again.

Leaders end up training in their small leadership group as teachers train in theirs, and both parties miss a great opportunity to have dialogue together, which fosters teacher voice and collective teacher efficacy.

In the End
We know that relationships matter. Bryk and Schneider (2003) have been writing about relational trust for many years, which you can read more about here. Authentic relationships within schools are those where stakeholders can have open dialogue and train together so they can discuss the challenges and work through how to overcome those challenges.

Collaborative leadership is about working on ideas together, and fostering student, teacher and parent voice so that everyone feels like they are an important part in the school community. This is not easily done, and it takes a great deal of dialogue and action. But imagine the impact we can all have on our school communities if we started taking those first steps toward collaborating more?

Connect with Peter DeWitt on Twitter.

For more information on Collaborative Leadership, click here to learn about Peter’s forthcoming book.

Commons photo courtesy of Tumisu.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.